Barriers to medical marijuana industry are keeping some patients from benefiting, advocates say

Virginia News

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-One year after the first medical marijuana dispensaries opened in Virginia, the budding industry is still going through growing pains that are making it difficult for many patients to benefit, according to advocates.

Some are dealing with high prices and long drives to dispensaries. Others are struggling to get a medical card in the first place, between technological barriers and lengthy wait times for state approval. 

Caylee Goad, 25, said cannabis helps keep her focused while coping with bipolar, attention deficit disorder and anxiety. She said she made the switch after learning her previous medications were causing her thyroid to shut down. 

“I had the option to add more medication onto my daily regimen or start using a plant and that’s what I did after years and years of research,” Goad said. “My quality of life is just better.”

Goad initially registered in Virginia’s Medical Cannabis Program more than two years ago before any dispensaries were open. At the time, she said she often traveled to D.C. to purchase her products.

In the last year, five medical dispensaries have opened in Virginia. But living in Blackstone, Goad still has to drive more than an hour to get to closest one in Richmond.

Plus, high prices are a barrier. Goad said her monthly supply costs roughly $1,000 and insurance doesn’t cover it. 

“I’m a single mom and a full-time nursing student,” Goad said. “I can’t even explain to you the burden that it causes me. That is why I started home growing so I don’t have to rely on that.” 

The General Assembly legalized limited home growth and possession of recreational marijuana earlier this year but those stores aren’t allowed to open yet. For now, medical dispensaries are the only legal avenue to purchase cannabis in Virginia and those sales are for registered patients only.

“‘The medical cannabis program has the potential for 30 dispensaries. However, once this shifts under the new Cannabis Control Authority, Virginians can expect to see rapid expansion,” Virginia NORML Executive Director Jenn Michelle Pedini said.

Pedini said that regulatory shift is expected to occur in 2023.

For now, Pedini said limited locations and a smaller patient population mean high prices will likely continue to be a reality.

“Virginia’s new market does come with higher costs but there are other barriers patients face. Technology presents a significant barrier for a number of Virginians who might not have access to smartphones, computers or high speed internet,” Pedini said. 

Pedini said that comes into play when prospective patients are looking for a doctor to prescribe them medical cannabis. The state requires practitioners to register and, if there is not a provider nearby, some patients don’t have the resources to take advantage of telehealth.

Others are facing delays when it’s time for the state to process and approve their medical card. Goad said she knows people who have waited six to eight weeks. 

“It prolongs people getting access to this medicine that can really change their life,” Goad said. 

The Virginia Board of Pharmacy declined to do an interview on Tuesday. A spokesperson, Diane Powers, said in an email that the number of pending applications was not readily available. She said 34,172 patients are currently registered with the Board of Pharmacy and the state is getting more than 1,000 new applications each week. 

“The Board makes every effort to process a complete application within 30 business days of submission.  A separate issue that impacts patients is the untimely delivery of registration cards through the US Postal Service,” Powers said. 

Powers said the Board recently hired two additional employees in this area and will continue with recruitment “as necessary.” 

The Board is also planning to implement a new licensing software system that is expected to expedite the process by providing digital registration and reducing the need to mail cards.  Powers said they are hopeful that this will be implemented by early 2022.

“While it is somewhat premature to speak of a platform that is not yet officially under contract, it is the Board’s hope that a new platform will potentially accommodate a more electronic transfer of information, in lieu of manual submission of attachments via mail, fax, or email which must then be married to an online application,” Powers wrote.

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